A tribute to a real trailblazer, Ballyclare woman Heather Smart - the first female Firefighter in Northern Ireland.

It's been a momentous week as Heather marks her retirement from NIFRS after 27 years’ service. Reflecting on her career she says, "I didn't consider myself to be special.  I was just keen to prove that I could do the job that I had set my heart on.

"I had always admired those women during WWII who took up manual labour and dangerous jobs that had previously been thought of as a 'man's job'. It was hardly surprising that I set my heart on what was considered the ultimate man's job. 

"When I joined what was the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade in 1991, I was looking for a job that would challenge me, one that promised to be different every day and which required a degree of physical activity.

first female firefighter retires

"Growing up my parents never set any limits on what I or my two sisters could do - but I do think that they were a little surprised by my choice of career. On the day of my passing out parade they were happy and proud of me and if they had any misgivings about the risks involved in being a Firefighter, they never imposed those on me.

"People are always keen to ask about the training and whether or not I found it difficult. As a new recruit, I knew how important training was but it was just something that you got on with as you had to know how to face all eventualities. I didn't really think too much about it and like everyone else I had some good days and bad days. Having the support and friendship of my fellow recruits definitely made things much easier - and it's been lovely to see so many of them go on to forge very successful careers within NIFRS.

"As the first female Firefighter there were challenges to overcome. The physical aspect of the job wasn't an issue but there was a different culture in those days. Some people were more accepting than others of a female Firefighter. It’s a very different situation today as we now have 64 female Firefighters.

"I would like to say a special thank you to Arthur Plumpton who was my first Station Officer. He was scrupulously fair and treated me no different to my male colleagues which was exactly what I wanted. He was very accepting of having a woman in the Watch and I could not have had a better start to my career.

"The most satisfactory aspect of the job for me was the feeling of a job well done, that I had helped someone in need and really made a difference. I can look back on many memorable incidents - especially those particularly tricky rescues using the aerial appliance. Another highlight is the day I passed my Leading Firefighters exam!

“The Fire & Rescue Service has been a big part of my life. The friendships and the camaraderie from colleagues is second to none.

"I would definitely recommend the job of a Firefighter - and not just to women. If you feel that this is the job for you, you've just got to go for it and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  The job is what you make it and there are plenty of opportunities available.

"Would I do it all again? Without a doubt! I could have been more ambitious but then I wouldn't have been able to enjoy the friendships and good times I experienced with my colleagues over the last 27 years. To Red Watch, Knock - thanks to you all!